Amanda Huynh: What sparked your interest in poetry? Were you writing poetry from the very beginning of your nursing career or did it slowly evolved?
Theodore Deppe: A love of writing comes from a love of reading: Dostoyevsky and Dylan Thomas were early invitations to try to understand life better through a conversation with others by way of the page. I wrote poetry, stories, and plays throughout high school and college, and in 1970 I walked a thousand-mile circle around Ireland as part of an independent study creative writing class arranged with a poetry professor at Earlham College. It’s hard to make a living as a poet, though, so after I married and started a family I became a registered nurse. Nursing requires an active attention, just as poetry does. My current definition of a poem is that it is an act of attention, born of surprise, played out in words.
Working night shift and helping raise three children with my wifecut into my writing time, so I gradually found that I was turning to poems when time and inspiration coincided, that is, not often enough. But hospitals are great places for writers: one comes up against life-and-death moments and I wrote a sequence poem about a patient I was caring for in the ICU and it seemed good enough that I began to write more. Then one night I had a dream in which I was having a heart attack and realized that I was leaving my children with no father or money. But, I thought, at least they’ll have the poems, they can know who their father was from them. And then, in the dream, I thought, But the poems are terrible, and I hurried to my desk to destroy them. Waking, I decided it was time to start writing good poems, and I became quite compulsive, writing at least two hours a day.
Was it difficult transitioning from a nurse to full-time writer and teacher?
My first two books of poems came out while I was working as a nurse, and they led to invitations to teach part-time in a high school for the arts and then a university. I was finding that I enjoyed teaching at the same time I was finding that my nursing job—which I’d loved for most of the twenty years I worked as an R.N.—was becoming almost unrecognizable. The insurance industry had put such pressure on hospitals that they had to cut staff, and I was put in charge of two units at once. It was a dangerous and stressful situation, and when I found I couldn’t change it, I gave myself a one-year “sabbatical.” So at age 50, we sold our house, quit our jobs, and rented the southernmost house in Ireland, a home on the sea cliffs of Cape Clear Island. We thought we’d return to the States at the end of the year and I’d get a teaching or nursing job, but I was offered a position teaching in a graduate program in Ireland and we stayed on. So far, that one-year trip to Ireland has lasted over fifteen years.
What are some pitfalls new poets tend to make? What are some ways a poet can improve his or her work?
Traditionally, I discourage new students from using end rhyme and meter for the first few weeks of a semester, as it’s so easy to sound old-fashioned, or like a bad greeting card. I encourage them to play with syntax, sonic devices like assonance and alliteration, metaphor, etc. and then we work up towards more formal techniques. Reading widely, writing wild rough drafts, revising freely (instead of just tiny cosmetic touch-ups), and looking for the true subject to emerge during the act of writing all feel like important things. As my Stonecoast colleague Jeanne Marie Beaumont says, “Go further, deeper, wilder.”
What are you currently reading? Who are some writers that inspire you?
Annie and I have been reading with pleasure Bernard MacLaverty (Grace Notes, Collected Stories) and Niall Williams (History of the Rain) to each other in preparation for their residency in Ireland this winter. I’ve been reading Eamon Grennan’s There Now and the New Collected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer. So many writers have inspired me, but some names that come to mind right now are Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dorothy Day, John Keats, James Baldwin, Betsy Sholl, Robert Cording, Mark Doty, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Robert Hass, and of course my in-house muse, Annie Deppe.
In your acknowledgements, you give your wife, Annie Deppe, credit for being your first reader. From my understanding, she is a writer as well. Have you and Annie collaborated together in writing? How do you two help one another?
Annie and I were classmates in the poetry workshop at Earlham College, and like me, she found it hard to sustain the writing while raising three children and working. When we moved to Cape Clear Island in 2000, she planned to write a novel, but instead wrote much of what became her first book of poems, Sitting in the Sky. Her second collection, Wren Cantata, was also published by Summer Palace Press in Ireland. We try not to show each other our poems until we have gotten them as far as we can ourselves. It’s great being married to a poet. Who else would understand why we stay in a room so long by ourselves, and then start talking to ourselves in that room, and then give our lives over to something that makes so little money? The one time we actually tried to collaborate on a book of non-fiction about living on Cape Clear Island, we found that we were both too opinionated about each aspect of the writing and never got past the first couple of chapters. We read books of poetry and fiction to each other after meals, and those times are very sweet.
In Beautiful Wheel, you’re doing some wonderful things. Can you tell us about this collection in your own words? What did you learn while writing this collection?
When I put Beautiful Wheel together, I was surprised to find how much of it was inspired by music—Bob Dylan, Pablo Casals, Louis Armstrong, Maurice Ravel, Turkish buskers in Berlin, Pink Floyd as played by the guitarist who showed up on the beach at the wrong wedding… somehow music has become for me the way to approach things I can’t quite put words to, which is the work of poetry. My mother, father, and favorite uncle died while I was working on this book, and one of my closest friends committed suicide so music somehow became one way to approach the mysteries of these lives of ours. Dreams became another important thread in this collection, another way to try to understand. I’m intrigued at the way I seem to have been learning in this collection to write longer sequences, staying “in the poem” to explore the territory fully. The last poem could have been the first part of the book-length poem I’ve written this past year—I think what I learned in Beautiful Wheel has made this new book possible.